Friday, August 5, 2011

The Blame Game

A cartoon in the New Yorker a couple of months ago showed a family lost in the jungle. The father, scratching his chin, is saying, "OK, I admit it, we're lost. But the important thing is to remain focused on whose fault it is." I'm thinking of getting a framed copy to hang in my caucus room. Frequently the task in a mediation is to get the parties away from focusing on recriminations and blame for how they got themselves into their situation, and toward focusing on possible solutions to their conflict. It might be helpful for people to look at this picture, which enables us to see how obviously ridiculous it is for a family lost in the jungle to spend their time arguing about who was mainly responsible for getting them there, instead of working together to find a way out.

I love doing mediation because it is designed for the sole purpose of helping people trapped in conflict find a way out. People usually arrive at my office for a mediation because they need a way out, not only of the underlying conflict, but also out of a new legal conflict in which they find themselves embroiled after they went to court to try to resolve their dispute. There they learned that the courts are not designed primarily to help people find a way out. The courts are designed for assigning blame. One reason people are naturally inclined to go to court to resolve a dispute is that they think like the family in the cartoon, that the way to resolve their conflict is to figure out whose fault it is. Now if your object is to punish your adversary, and you believe you need all the trappings of the justice system to establish who is right and who is wrong, or if your adversary gives you no other choice, then court is the place for you. But even if that is your intent, you quickly find out that the cost of that system is rather high, and the results are not always what you were hoping for.

For those seeking a principled resolution of their dispute, mediation can still serve as a useful shortcut, to obtain a better approximation of the results that might be reached in court, at lower cost. I prefer, however, to think of mediation as the anti-court, in part because in mediation it is not always even necessary to assign fault, or accept blame. Mediation works best when it allows the participants to work together to design a solution to their common problem. 

What prompted this post (which is adapted from something I posted on my political site), was reading some of the reactions people are having to the debt ceiling deal from last week, and also to the stock market crash this week. We seem to be stuck in a continuing, and perhaps deepening, economic quagmire, and we don't seem to know how to get out of it. So we spend our time blaming one another for the mess we are in. In part, politicians may feel compelled to do this for their own survival. But it does seem like a colossal waste of energy, that could be put to better use in designing solutions to our economic and political problems. Maybe we have to engage in finger-pointing, because we just don't know how to get out of the mess we find ourselves in. Even to the extent some of us think we know, we can't agree on solutions. And that leaves us no alternative but to play the blame game.


Tammy Cravit said...

My teenage daughter often engages in the blame game — or its inverse, finding ways to prove something isn't her fault. My standard response these days is to remind her that, even if we could figure out whose fault the problem is, that information brings us no closer to a solution to the problem. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is," I might say, "because we still have the problem." Along the same vein, I'm told there's a management saying in Japan along the lines of "fix the problem, not the blame".

In the mediation arena, I think this tendency emerges because conflicts are often less about the facts that gave rise to the dispute, and more about the sense of injustice one or both parties experience with respect to the conflict. People want to resolve their conflicts, but they want them resolved in their own favor - not so much because of the economic benefit, I think, as because of their need to feel vindicated in the perceived injustice. Certainly this is true in many of the conflicts I've mediated.

Joe Markowitz said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Tammy. My kids like to make fun of me because I've been telling them since they were little that I don't care who started it.

Brent said...

Hi Joe,

I like your blog and comments. I would say that the father in the cartoon is doing something that a lot of people don't do until they are in the mediation; admit they are lost and then see about getting directions to get them on their way. We present to them all the variations and possibilities on life's compass and they decide which way is best for them.